To Think Is Not Always To Know
The brain never sleeps, we never stop cognizing. Even the greatest of yogis cannot stop the brain, only minimize the cacophony and place the processes in a more deliberate ordered manner. Only biological cessation, death, can halt completely the incessant hunger of neurological firings, feeding as it does on calories and the flow of information shaped into and out of experience. The entirety of this is often referred to merely as “thinking,” the simplicity of such a term a grotesque diminishing of the feats being accomplished every second of every minute of every hour of every day of our lives.
In general, thinking is not, after even a quick perusal of our daily experiences, all that profound in itself, at least not as it stands in comparison to those flashes of insight, those moments of profundity, the grasping of a particular difficult notion. In such situations thinking is left behind and instead what is gained is knowledge. There is a biological experience of seeing metaphorically related to the cognitive experience of knowing. The immediate example is someone noting they are “thinking through” a problem but the solution is met with an exclamation of “ah, I see.”
The distinction between thinking and knowing here cannot be overstated. However much overlap there exists neurologically, the phenomenological experience of the two is quite different. Rare is the person who is caught up in a movement or identifies with a particular ideology merely on the basis of thinking. Rather, it is in the proclamation of knowing in which a person can be called out for their adherence or allegiance to an ideological structure. More pointed, planes are not flown into buildings, bombs are not set off at abortion clinics, women’s rights and voting rights are not curtailed out of a general course of thinking but rather burst out of what is felt to be known like pustules. We do not identify ourselves with the trajectory of our thoughts, only the so-called conclusions that we call knowledge. Thankfully while the aforementioned examples are all negative, the majority of people come to far more positive conclusions, ones that appreciate life rather than seek to curtail its expression.
There is a journey involved here on the path to knowing, as noted above in the metaphor of “thinking through,” an allusion to a path or tunnel, undoubtedly why knowledge is so often equated with light particularly as it arrives after emerging from a dark place. A great historical allegory is Socrates’s cave, out of which the budding philosopher must initially step from.
To follow this notion of a path (thinking) and destination (knowledge) I want to turn to Democracy and Education by John Dewey. “Thinking in other words, is the intentional endeavor to discover specific connections between something which we do and the consequences which result, so that the two become continuous.” (p. 145) Dewey is here indicating that thinking is an active process, an intentional act in which a person is engaged, deliberately drawing internal connections between the action-reaction relationship of our moment-to-moment behavior. It is not enough in other words to strike a match and see the flame, we must also attempt to know how the two events are linked. This process here is the distinguishing criteria between what is passive engagement with life and active involvement. It is this activity which coincides with the distinction I started with between mere thinking and knowledge, or passive and active.
To move along the path of thinking to knowledge as a deliberate action is to engage more fully with a broader section of life. The potential for peak experiences is bound within the relational reality within which we all exist and interconnect. Thinking is the primary means we traverse this plain of being with knowledge being largely equivalent to a peak cognitive situation, an “ah ha!” moment of clarity in the midst of the maelstrom of thought. As Dewey declares: “All that the wisest man man can do is to observe what is going on more widely and more minutely and then select more carefully from what is noted just those factors which point to something to happen.” (p. 146) This is undeniably a subjective experience, but not one that need spin us off into relativism.
In point 4 of my Thoughts On Metaphysics And Social Implications I note:
“Subjectivity is not a creative enterprise, but an interpretive one. One does not create a new reality, since all belongs to a singularity, but rather one relates to it differently based on the interpretive devices utilized. These devices, from sense experience to critical rationality, subjection to authority, etc. are not perfect and can be error-prone though the particular error may belong only to a specific aspect of the interpretation, not the entirety. This non-absolute nature of knowledge in no way makes impossible the acquisition of truth in so far as truth is acceptable, as it seems it is required to be, as one of increasing certainty or probabilistic knowledge.”
The relationship between thinking and knowing is one of varying degrees, hopefully diminishing, of uncertainty. While our conscious thoughts are, by definition, open to us, we know not from whence they come, arising as they do out of the void that is our interactional brains. Thus knowledge or peak experience is only ever tentative, a subjective and no less powerful experience because of it, but not of a nature with absoluteness. However much emotional power is held by our conclusions providing certainty, thinking and the knowledge that comes out of it “…involves a risk. Certainty cannot be guaranteed in advance. The invasion of the unknown is of the nature of an adventure; we cannot be sure in advance.” (Dewey, p. 148)
In our everyday thoughts then, in the trajectory of the paths which we give energy to and travel upon, it is important to keep in mind that conclusions and what we feel to be true are like pinpricks of light upon a giant canvas of potential knowledge. We can be happy with what we find but never should we mistake our points of contact with knowledge as encapsulating the whole nor no matter how many dots of light we have before us should be content with believing that’s all we need to know. Life is ever-expanding, so should we be in how we relate within it.
© David Teachout